There are a quarter of a million civil lawsuits pending within the federal judicial system—everything from fender-benders to complex class actions, from two-bit torts to billion-dollar battles. But of all those cases in all those district courts across the nation, no more than fifteen are genuine Elephant Orgies. And an even smaller number fall into that rarest of categories: the Jurassic Park Blue Plate Special.
Every litigator dreams of landing a role in an Elephant Orgy—one of those massive, complicated cases that lumber along for years, featuring an entourage of gray corporate plaintiffs and defendants shuffling through interminable pretrial proceedings, occasionally mounting one another, and all the while generating astounding quantities of legal fees. In my years as a junior associate in Chicago, I had worked on the mother of them all, In re Bottles & Cans, now entering its thirty-second year, and still no trial date in sight. Even the towel boy at an Elephant Orgy can be set for years.
By contrast, no one wants to be the featured item on a Jurassic Park Blue Plate Special. That’s the litigation equivalent of being the tethered lamb in the T. rex compound. But lately, to my increasing dismay, the simple age discrimination lawsuit that I’d filed on behalf of one of my mother’s friends had gone prehistoric. These days my sixty-three-year-old client and I spend a lot of time just trying to keep the bell from tinkling.
But that could all change tonight, I told myself, as the next highway sign came into view and snapped me out of my Mesozoic reverie.
I checked my watch. 7:03 p.m. On schedule so far.
I was supposed to meet Gloria Muller at seven-thirty at the Applebee’s restaurant off Highway 55 in Springfield, Illinois. She was my secret weapon in my lawsuit against Beckman Engineering Co.
Or so I hoped.
I sure needed one.
I’d learned of her during a telephone conversation last week with Charlie Hartman, a private investigator I had working on the case. Charlie had called from Springfield, where he’d gone to interview a man named Dobson. Dobson had worked in Beckman Engineering’s government contracts division for seven years before taking a job with one of Beckman’s competitors, Muller Construction, headquartered in Springfield. Depending upon your view of reality, Muller Construction was either an innocent competitor of Beckman Engineering or one of its evil co-conspirators. We claimed the latter, and I was hoping that Dobson might be willing to talk. But Charlie had called with bad news.
“Forget about him, Rachel. He’s spooked.” “Beckman’s lawyers got to him?”
“Last night, and now he’s sweating bullets.”
Charlie explained that Beckman Engineering’s attorneys had sent out a battalion of couriers to hand-deliver threatening letters to a large group of ex-employees, including Dobson. The letters reminded them of their nondisclosure agreements and warned that Beckman Engineering Co. would “vigorously prosecute any breach thereof.” Among lawyers, that kind of epistle is known as a hammer letter.
But Charlie also had a bit of good news as well. “I found someone who wants to talk—or rather, she found me.”
Surprised, I’d reached for my list of key ex-employees, which lately I’d been keeping on my credenza. These were the people most likely to have knowledge about Ruth Alpert’s claim. There were thirty-six names on the list. Only two were women, and neither lived within a thousand miles of Springfield.
“What’s her name, Charlie?” “Gloria Muller.”
“Muller? Any relation?”
Charlie chuckled. “His ex-wife.”
And, as Charlie explained, no ordinary ex-wife. Gloria Muller had been married for thirty-seven years to Edgar Muller, founder of Muller Construction Co. She still had plenty of contacts within the company, and she’d learned from one of them that Charlie was in town trying to set up a meeting with an ex-employee of Beckman Engineering. Although Charlie spoke with her only briefly, it was clear that she detested her ex-husband and savored an opportunity to make his life miser- able. More important, she claimed to have damaging firsthand information about Muller, Beckman, and, in her words, “their disgusting scheme.” She refused to say anything further to Charlie. She told him she’d only talk to me, and only if she decided that I was okay.
I told Charlie to try to set up a meeting. He called back a day later with her terms: she’d start with a screening interview at a neutral site in Springfield. If I passed that test, we’d go back to her house to discuss things in more detail; if not, we’d part and never talk again. I’d mulled it over. Springfield was a ninety-minute drive from St. Louis—a three-hour round-trip after work. Even worse, Gloria Muller sounded like a vindictive witness, which meant that there’d be major credibility issues with her testimony. But, I’d reminded myself, she was also a living, breathing witness—a rarity in my lawsuit against Beckman Engineering. That alone had made the trip worth the gamble.
# # #
I took the second Springfield exit off I-55 and followed her instructions to the restaurant. I pulled into the Applebee’s lot, parked my car, and entered the restaurant at exactly 7:30 p.m. I told the hostess who I was meeting. She had me follow her back to the smoking section.
We reached the booth just as Gloria Muller was stubbing her cigarette into an ashtray that was already festooned with filter-tipped butts, each smudged red with lipstick. I shook her hand and slid in on the other side of the booth. Glancing at the stuffed ashtray, I said, “You did say seven-thirty, right?”
Gloria nodded and reached into her purse to pull out a platinum cigarette case engraved with her initials. “You’re right on time.”
She had a raspy voice. I could smell alcohol on her breath. I glanced at the fancy glass coffee mug. Irish coffee, I assumed.
She opened the cigarette case and held it toward me. I shook my head. “No, thanks.”
There was a gold Dunhill lighter on the table near her coffee cup. She used it to light her cigarette and then tilted her head back and blew the smoke to the side. She watched the smoke dissipate and turned to fix me with a hard stare.
“Well,” she said in that raspy voice, “is someone finally going to nail that miserable prick?”
I paused, uncertain. “Which miserable prick?”
She burst into laughter—one of those cigarette cackles that ended in a coughing fit that ran aground on what sounded like a glob of phlegm. The waitress arrived as Gloria was clearing her throat. I ordered a cup of decaf and a slice of cherry pie.
As Gloria Muller studied the dessert menu, I studied her. Two adjectives immediately came to mind: rich and unpleasant. She was thin bordering on bony, with that angular look that comes from a strict diet and a stricter personal trainer. Whatever her original hair color, it was now a lacquered, frosted blond. She was wearing a designer suit in scarlet wool and plenty of expensive jewelry, including big diamonds on her fingers and a heavy gold Y-link bracelet on her wrist. She must have been a striking beauty during her twenties and thirties, but decades of sunbathing and sun lamps had left her in her sixties with a leathery, wrinkled face and a stringy turtle’s neck blotched with age spots.
“I’ll take a slice of your fat-free, sugar-free coconut cream pie.” She handed the waitress her menu. “And another cup of Irish coffee. Make it a double this time.”
When the waitress left, Gloria turned back to me with a look of amusement. “’Which miserable prick?’” she repeated with a smile. “I like that.” She stubbed out her cigarette and leaned back in her seat. “So,” she said, “I understand you went to Harvard Law School.”
She sized me up. “You’re a good-looking woman.” I shrugged awkwardly, not certain how to respond.
“I bet some of those professors tried to get in your pants, eh?
Men.” She snorted in disgust. “Bastards, aren’t they?” “Some are,” I conceded.
She chuckled. “Some? You’re still young, honey. You wait.” She leaned back in her chair and pursed her lips pensively. After a moment, she said, “I asked around. They say Rachel Gold is one tough cookie.”
“Oh? Who’s they?”
She winked. “Max Feiglebaum.”
“Max.” I smiled at the memory. “We worked on a divorce case together.”
Gloria nodded as she reached for another cigarette. “That’s what he told me. He thinks you’re terrific.”
“He’s a good lawyer.”
Max Feiglebaum, aka Max the Knife, was one of the most feared divorce lawyers in Chicago. He was a ruthless little ferret who wore dark glasses and Italian suits. His principal victims were the men of the Chicago ruling class who’d had the misfortune (literally) of marrying one of Max’s future clients.
Gloria flicked the lighter, got her cigarette lit, and exhaled the smoke through her nose. “He’s a barracuda.”
“How do you know him?” I asked.
“He was my divorce lawyer.” “Ah.” I gave her a knowing smile.
She nodded smugly. “We made that bastard pay through the nose.”
“I’m not surprised.”
And I wasn’t. My investigator had filled me in on some of the details. Gloria’s marriage of thirty-seven years had ended in an acrimonious divorce after her stone-drunk husband telephoned from room 203 of the Springfield Holiday Inn one weekday afternoon four years ago to announce that he was in love. The object of Edgar Muller’s passion was a twenty-two-year-old redhead from accounts receivable whose high-pitched giggles were audible in the background.
Although Max the Knife had no doubt carved a hefty slab of flesh out of Edgar Muller’s hide, Gloria was still bitter. And, I conceded, understandably so. Not only had her husband dumped her for a woman almost young enough to be her grand- daughter, but his new bride had already given him something Gloria had failed to do through six miscarriages: Edgar Junior. Add to that her loss of status within Springfield society. Only last month, the same gossip column that had once reported Gloria’s victory in a country club tennis tournament or her shopping spree in New York ran a photo of Edgar and his new wife at the Hard Rock Cafá in Las Vegas during a recent construction industry convention.
As we ate our pies and sipped our coffee, I explained the nature of the claim in general terms, namely, that what had started as a simple age discrimination claim was now something far different. We believed that Beckman Engineering had participated in an illegal bid-rigging conspiracy involving a series of federal government contracts. Although many of the details were still fuzzy, we believed that the co-conspirators included Muller Construction Company and possibly a company in Chicago called Koll Ltd.
At the mention of Koll Ltd., she chuckled. “Oh, yes. Otto was one of them.”
I frowned. “Otto?”
“Koll. He owns the company.”
“You know him?” I asked, surprised.
She nodded. “You bet, honey. I could probably list the whole rotten gang right now.” She paused to light another cigarette. “Now tell me more about your client. Her name’s Ruth?”
“Tell me about her, and tell me exactly what’s going on in your lawsuit.”
So I did. I could tell that Gloria responded to my client’s plight, perhaps seeing in her another older woman scorned. As I explained the case, it was difficult to contain my growing excitement. For almost six months Beckman Engineering’s attorneys had been stonewalling me. They had yet to produce a single document from their files or a witness for a deposition. Moreover, they had intimidated their former employees and others from talking to me. It had been, quite literally, a campaign of silence.
In Gloria Muller I had finally found a witness who appeared to know something. Better yet, she was beyond the reach of Beckman Engineering and its attorneys. This was no ex-employee they could muzzle with a hammer letter. This was an ex-wife with an attitude who just might know where some of the bodies were buried and who just might be willing to show me where to dig. “If Ruth is right about what she observed,” I explained, “this conspiracy may have lasted for a decade. That’s an unusually long time for a bid-rigging conspiracy. If she’s right, though, the money at stake is huge.”
Gloria chuckled and reached out to pat my hand. “Honey, this conspiracy goes back a helluva lot longer than ten years. It goes all the way back. And the money back at the beginning”— she paused and shook her head in disgust—“believe me, honey, the money back then was a lot filthier than anything since.”
She reached for the bill and checked her watch. It was almost nine o’clock. “Well,” she said as she stood up, “how about we go back to my house?”
I smiled. “Sounds good.”
She gave me a wink. “I think it’s time that you and I had ourselves a little heart-to-heart, Rachel.”
On the way out of the restaurant she tried to give me direc- tions, but I’m terrible with directions—I lost her somewhere around the fourth left turn.
“I have a better idea,” I said, buttoning my coat as we stepped out into the brisk autumn wind. “I’ll follow you home. Where’s your car?”
“Right there.” She gestured toward a huge silver Cadillac parked against the curb along the side of the restaurant. As she stepped toward her car, she stumbled slightly but recovered. There was a lot of Irish coffee zinging through her bloodstream. “I’m back there,” I said, pointing at my red Jeep Wrangler.
It was parked in the third aisle, almost directly behind her car, two rows back. “Wait for me, okay?”
She nodded as she unlocked her door and yanked it open a bit too forcefully. A gust of wind snapped the canvas banner overhead. I jogged toward my car. I didn’t want to risk her driving off without me.
I could hear her engine rev as I unlocked my car door and got in. I was facing the restaurant and had a clear view of her Cadillac through the row of cars separating us. I started my engine as her red taillights came on.
That’s when I spotted him.
He was huge: NFL lineman huge.
He was running toward the Cadillac from the street, where a late-model car was idling at the curb, the passenger door open. My hands gripped the steering wheel. Something was wrong with this scene.
He was wearing a long, bulky trench coat. Big body, big head, crew cut. He stopped directly in front of the Cadillac just as the white reverse lights came on.
I watched in horror as he pulled a shotgun from beneath his trench coat, braced it against his shoulder, and aimed at the windshield.
The first shot exploded the glass.
The second shot splattered the rear window red.
There was an awful hush. I watched as the silver Cadillac drifted backward, arcing slowly to the left. By then, the shooter was running toward the waiting car. He climbed in on the passenger side, and the car squealed off as the door closed. I turned back just as the Cadillac crunched into a parked car.
Stunned, I opened my door and slowly got out, staring all the while at the Cadillac, at those smeared windows. The wind had died. The eerie silence seemed to magnify other sounds. I could hear the low hum of her car engine, and I could hear something else. A faint tinkling noise. It took a moment to identify it. It was the sound of falling pebbles—hundreds of tiny pebbles of glass from the shattered front windshield, tiny pebbles sliding off the car hood and onto the ground.
Unable to move, I stared, horrified, at that rear window splattered red. I squeezed my eyes shut, and suddenly the tinkling was no longer falling glass. Now it was the sound of tiny bells. I shivered. Tiny bells on tethered lambs.